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Couch Potato Rants About Video Quality

You gotta understand this. I'm an audio guy. When I'm doing audio, I'm really pretty fussy, got lotsa critical standards, lotsa moaning ‘n groaning about noise ‘n distortion, bandwidth, resolution, compression artifacts, yada, yada, blah, blah, blah!

But I'm not a video guy; I'm your basic couch potato. Seriously, I AM the Joe Six-Pack of video. Got no standards, a totally passive uncritical and unschooled viewer. Time was, if I could tell it was basketball as opposed to the 6 o'clock news, I was fine with it. Well, times change. About a year ago, as a function of consulting I was doing for Bang & Olufsen, the company gave me one of its 32-inch Avant TVs.

Now this is a seriously wicked cool TV, a TV that does some really nice and really tricky things with an NTSC signal. Not HD exactly, but close. Good enough quality that video guys who have come by for one thing or another end up staring at it mesmerized, saying things like "Wow, look at that shadow tone around his armpit! I never see stuff like that on MY monitor," and, "Man, when the talent gets one of these, they're gonna fire everyone in makeup. You can really see where the wrinkles are!"


For me, this was too cool. I just wallowed in the picture quality and practiced guessing the age of the movie from the color quality and the film grain. For the first time, I could actually see this stuff. And I found that some channels/shows had simply stellar video quality. The newsroom shots from CNN or any of the major networks are usually amazing, and the Disney Channel looks really, really good (a major triumph of form over substance?).

But it turns out that there's a downside to all this super video picture quality. It turns out you can also now see some really bad stuff that earlier you weren't able to see. Even worse, it looks like we're generating additional forms of bad stuff that were never available for viewing before.

What I've found is that I, functioning as the Joe Six-Pack of the couch potato cohort, am beginning to develop a "flinch" reflex to some of these badnesses. I find I'm beginning to avoid some channels and some content where the problems show up.

More to the point, I find my TV watching is declining because the viewing experience is becoming less pleasurable. The trouble really began when my cable provider "upgraded" me to "digital" cable TV. Before then, I had happily grooved along on the 50 channels or so that I'd become familiar with before B&O ruined me forever.

Some stations and genres such as locally produced sports seemed pretty rough but the Avant made the picture way cooler, no doubt about it. With the new digital cable, however, matters have gotten worse – not better.


I have some 250 channels and I guess what they mean when they say it's digital is that they have converted, for transmission, a lot of analog channels into digital signals that get converted back to analog by a set-top box on the receiver. And I suspect there is some serious digital video compression going on to jam all that bandwidth into my living room.

The first (admittedly minor) annoyance occurs when I go north of Channel 100 and change channels. Takes awhile, it does. And the new picture doesn't all come in at once, it starts coming on-screen in stupid little squares, taking maybe five seconds to get everything on-screen. Annoying, ugly, inconvenient when you're channel surfing. Not a big deal, just annoying.

But then I began to notice other things. Rapid motion or light change – particularly with strong light contrasts – results in a kind of bubbly decaying residue and/or disconnected flickering of the bright light artifacts. A news shot of a person walking rapidly while somebody fires off a flash camera at him, for instance, immediately develops a very ugly mottled texture that persists while the flash decays.

Meanwhile, sports such as football or basketball – where there are high-contrast uniforms in a brightly lit venue – present a host of nasties. The close-up, slow stuff is fine, but with any distant field shots the coarseness of resolution becomes obvious and nearly unbearable, especially when there's a lot of motion.

In those cases, the players often seem to disappear and generally what I see is brightly colored helmets and/or jerseys kind of moving about on the field. The lack of resolution of the signal and the artificiality of the image become painfully obvious.

In all fairness, my cable provider recently did another fiddle to its service and things may be a little better, but it remains ugly and annoying. And that's a serious problem. It goes like this: We are improving the resolution and signal quality of the production process, and we are rushing willy-nilly toward hi-res playback in the home.

But something bad is happening in the intervening post production and transmission systems. And the effect of those badnesses is being magnified by (a) the real improving resolution of consumer TVs, where improvements can be – and are – routinely observed in ALL their glory when viewing any half-way decent DVD; and (b) the obvious and frustrating channel-to-channel variability of the video signal.

And when a video couch potato like me begins to be bugged by it, the whole system is headed for trouble. I find I am taking more and more channels off my "Fav" list and I am watching TV less and less frequently, simply because it has become increasingly irritating.

The unfortunate mix of hi-res consumer gear and degraded transmission quality seems particularly poisonous. And I don't REALLY care about picture quality – or rather, I didn't until I could see it. Now that I can see it, I feel cheated when I can't see it. When my TV was mediocre, it all seemed fine. Now it's much, much less than fine.

We're in for a bumpy ride, I suspect.

Thanks for listening.